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Armenia kicks off joint military exercises with US despite Russian opposition

Eagle Partner 2023 Classroom Training (Spc. Andrew Mendoza/U.S. Army Reserve)
September 16, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Armenia and the United States have begun joint military exercises that have angered Moscow and come as tensions rise between Yerevan and neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement the Eagle Partner 2023 exercises began on September 11 with the purpose of preparing Armenian forces to take part in international peacekeeping missions.

Colonel Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for the U.S. command, said the exercises are “a vital opportunity for our soldiers from our two nations to build new relationships at the tactical level and to increase interoperability for peacekeeping operations.”

The drills are being held at the Zar and Armavir Training Areas near Yerevan and will end on September 20. The U.S military said 85 U.S. soldiers and 175 Armenians would take part. The Americans — including members of the Kansas National Guard, which has a 20-year-old training partnership with Armenia — will not be using heavy weaponry, it added.

Russia, which leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that includes Armenia, has expressed concern about the joint exercises at a time when relations between Moscow and Yerevan have shown signs of weakening.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 10 expressed regret over “the actions of the Armenian leadership,” saying he does not expected “anything good” to come of the exercises, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia will “monitor the situation.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry on September 8 summoned the Armenian ambassador to protest what it termed “unfriendly steps” taken by Yerevan, including the military exercises.

In Yerevan, meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has accused Russia of failing to protect Armenia against what he called continued aggression by Azerbaijan.

Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in the region to uphold an agreement that ended a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, the second they have fought since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Yerevan has accused Russian peacekeepers of failing to protect the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by around 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

Tigran Grigorian, political analyst and head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security in Yerevan, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the military exercises show Armenia is trying to distance itself from Russia.

“All recent steps of Armenia can be considered as an attempt to show that Armenia is not in the Russian camp,” Grigorian said.

Olesya Vartanian, senior South Caucasus analyst at the nonprofit conflict prevention organization Crisis Group, told Reuters on September 6 that Armenia was sending a signal to Moscow that “your distraction and the fact that you are so inactive plays toward our enemy,” a reference to Azerbaijan.

Yerevan has accused Azerbaijan of allowing a blockade of the highway linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for the past nine months. The blockade has left the local population with shortages of fuel, medicine, and food. Azerbaijan has justified its action by saying Armenia was using the road to supply weapons to Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia denies.

In a recent development, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of concentrating forces near the border between the two countries, which Baku denies.